Flagstaff retiree spices up soup kitchen's meals
by Betsey Bruner - Oct. 12, 2009 09:22 AM
Arizona Daily Sun
FLAGSTAFF - Chef Bob Maher of the Flagstaff Family Food Center serves up healthy, gourmet recipes that have diners coming back for seconds.
Chef Bob Maher put on a heavy denim jacket on a recent Monday morning and ventured into the cooler at the Flagstaff Family Food Center on North Second Street. His plan of action included two equally delicious recipes: A Tuscan stew over spaghetti and a mushroom broth to serve with the stew.
The Tuscan theme is one of several exotic culinary choices - in addition to Cajun, East Indian and French - that the chef creates to delight the palates of hungry diners at the food kitchen, who are served a hot meal every evening. Although semi-retired, Maher, 60, accepted the Saturday through Monday job as cook two years ago.
"Those three days are the highlight of the week," he said. "The weekend is kind of my little domain."
He shares cooking duties with Colleen Brochheuser, kitchen manager, who is the chef Tuesday through Friday.
Maher, who has attended only a few cooking workshops, is largely self-taught.
"This is pretty much my first real paid job as a cook," he said. "My dad was a really good cook. I learned a lot from him. I love to cook. I watch all of the PBS and Food Network cooking shows."
Watching movies is another hobby, and Maher saw "Julie & Julia" this summer.
"I just channeled Julia and made some French recipes from her book," he said. "Everybody was making Julia Child jokes and impersonating her voice, but I got inspired by that movie. I copied her recipes for beef bourguignon, haricot vert (French green beans), and baked cucumber."
Maher said his beef stew turned out great and people came back through the food line for second and third helpings.
"That's what I try to do every time I'm here - trying to use whatever has been donated and using different styles," he added.
Regular Monday donations from Red Lobster and Olive Garden restaurants have inspired many Italian meals.
As he waited for Keith Griffin, his assistant and a chef-in-training, to bring back his ingredients, Maher dialed the radio to classical music, to set the right mood for creativity.
"I call it my Tuscany series," Maher said, with a laugh. "I'll just use the soup as a base for an Italian stew. Whatever I have on hand goes over the spaghetti."
A recent donation of 40 boxes of sliced white mushrooms has provided sauteed mushrooms Saturday, mushrooms for elk stew Sunday and the broth Monday.
"I'll probably throw in six or eight boxes in the Tuscany cauldron," he said. "I went home last night and looked up mushrooms online. I found mushroom stock, a kind of broth with the mushroom flavor and another recipe for mushroom stew."
Maher said the food center, which opened Dec. 25, 1991, feeds 150 to 200 people on average each day.
Diners, who can get refills, are served a complete meal - typically meat, starch, hot vegetables, salad, beverage and dessert.
"We give them quite a bit of food," he said. "Sometimes you can tell it's the only meal these people are getting. It feeds a lot of kids."
Hannah Dunn, the soup kitchen's assistant director, said Maher may be one-of-a-kind.
"The diners love his food, and I've never heard of a soup kitchen' that has served these kind of gourmet meals," she said, speaking in an e-mail.
That Monday, four volunteers showed up to help prepare the Tuscan meal.
After loading a metal cart with donations from New Frontiers and the Sunday farmers market, Maher passed out fresh vegetables to his assistants, including turnips, cilantro, romaine and celery.
"He takes the time to use fresh fruits and vegetables," said Karen Fella, a retired teacher who just started as a volunteer. "Occasionally, he'll have something special that people appreciate - something varied."
Donations are starting to include fall produce, like pumpkins and squash.
"The universe provides," Maher said. "That happens a lot."